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Maryland’s Ag Secretary: More to farmers than bay pollution

Grove Miller is a retired Cecil County farmer. Much has changed since Miller started farming.

“I started farming with horses,” Miller says. “The first tractor I bought was a John Deere H, which now, most lawn mowers have more horse power than that tractor I bought.”

Something else has changed. These days, farmers in Maryland think they are getting a bad rap and it goes something like this.  Even though agriculture is the number one commercial industry in the state, you don’t hear much about farmers. And when you do, it usually has something to do with polluting the bay.

Howard County dairy farmer Derek Patrick says farmers make easy scapegoats. In his case, Patrick says he is taking steps to reduce runoff to the bay.

“We try to do our best,” Patrick says. “But then at the end of the day everyone still thinks the farmer ‘Ah,they’re the reason.’ So we’re not trying to kill anyone.”

Patrick says the state needs to do a better job of explaining to people what farmers actually do.

State Agriculture Secretary Joe Bartenfelder says that’s a fair criticism. Bartenfelder says he’s trying to reach out to people who don’t farm “to try to educate them more on what farming’s about now.”

For instance, farmers use manure for fertilizer and for years were told they could spread as much of it as they wanted on their fields because it wasn’t going anywhere. Turns out, that’s not true and that manure is a big source of phosphorous pollution runoff into the bay. So Bartenfelder says farmers are changing how and when they spread manure to reduce that runoff.

Bartenfelder says, “It isn’t a defined science yet. They’re still coming about with new knowledge, new changes and everything else.”

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, more than a quarter of all phosphorous that enters the bay comes from manure. Algae blooms love the stuff. They spread, cutting off sunlight to underwater grasses and reducing the oxygen in the water. Bartenfelder says Maryland growers are stepping up and farmers in other Bay states like Pennsylvania need to as well.

“But we can’t keep passing more stringent effects here without them being able to get on the same board with us,” Bartenfelder says.

Maryland farmers complained they were being over regulated by Governor Martin O’Malley. Two years ago, Bartenfelder jumped ship from the Democratic Party and campaigned for Republican Larry Hogan for Governor.

Bartenfelder says, “Being a lifelong farmer, loving agriculture like I do, that was a bigger issue than anything else.”

Agriculture is a more diverse industry today Crops like corn and soybeans are still big. But now you also have wineries, cideries, farmers markets, and craft beers with home grown hops. Medical marijuana is right around the corner. Nine dairy farms are dishing out ice cream.

“It’s probably the difference between being able to stay a little successful and staying in business, or having to go out of business,” Bartenfelder says.

Before becoming Agriculture Secretary, Bartenfelder served in the House of Delegates and on the Baltimore County Council. In 2010, he ran for the Democratic nomination for Baltimore County Executive, but was beaten by Kevin Kamenetz. He has farms in Caroline, Dorchester and Baltimore Counties.